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A blended family flees one of the world's most dangerous countries

Portrait of a family outdoors.

Driven out of their native Ecuador by violence, Olga, (L-R) Brittany, Genesys, Melany, and Nilson rest for a few days in a refugee camp in Honduras. All photos: Laura Noel/CARE

Driven out of their native Ecuador by violence, Olga, (L-R) Brittany, Genesys, Melany, and Nilson rest for a few days in a refugee camp in Honduras. All photos: Laura Noel/CARE

This is not a "meet-cute" story.

A few years ago, Genesys Azul and Nilson Vino met on a beach in Ecuador through mutual friends. Sparks did not fly. “We looked at each other and neither of us seemed interested,” Genesys said.

Genesys had recently left her native Venezuela to work in Quito as a beautician. She was living on her own and saving money to bring her young daughter, Brittany, and her grandmother, Olga, to Ecuador so they could start fresh in a safer place.

A few months after that uneventful day at the beach, Nilson reached out to Genesys through social media. “Then, as time went by, he sent me the request on Facebook and then we started talking as friends and talking and talking and talking,” Genesys said “And suddenly, right there on the networks, it was like that feeling was love.”

Pink table with drawings and names of countries (Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela) written on it.
A table, bearing the names of the countries refugees have fled, used for crafts at a migrant site along the Honduras-Nicaragua border.

Fast forward seven years to April 2024. Genesys, 32, and Nilson, 37, are married and have a two-year-old daughter named Melany. Brittany, 10, and Olga, 72, were able to rejoin the family. The newly blended family of five was happy in Ecuador.

Seemingly overnight, peaceful Ecuador became one of the most dangerous countries in the world, when organized crime muscled into the country from neighboring Colombia. The murder rate has skyrocketed since 2019. Presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was assassinated in August 2023, after he publicly named cartel leaders. An armed gang broke into a TV studio in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, in January 2024, brutalizing the staff on live television and throwing the country into a panic.

The family’s decision to leave was not based on a particular incident, Genesys said, but the ever-present violence that made life in Quito intolerable.

“We were worried; we no longer wanted to leave the house … and we began to say that it was no longer a safe place for our children and for us to be. So, my husband and I talked, and little by little we began to save with our salary from work, until we managed to have the resources and decided to go to Colombia and then begin the journey through the jungle.”

Close-up portrait of a young girl.
Genesys worries about the mental and emotional effect of the journey on Brittany, age 10.

In an interview with NBC News, Benjamin Gedan, director of the Latin America program at the Wilson Center global affairs think tank in Washington, D.C., described the sudden increase in violence in Ecuador as “apocalyptic.” “There is a real question whether organized crime can be brought under control with the resources that Ecuador has at its disposal. It’s really reminiscent of the darkest days of Mexico and Colombia,” he said.

By Spring 2024, the family of five had traveled almost 1,200 miles and was resting for a day or two at the Charitas migrant shelter on the border between Honduras and Nicaragua. The U.S. border with Mexico was still thousands of miles away. The most arduous and dangerous part of their journey to date, was the trek through the Darien Gap, a treacherous landscape of jungles and cliffs, covering a 60-mile section of Panama. Gangs often prey on migrants here, as there is little or no law enforcement or basic access to food and shelter.  “Anything can happen to you if you are left alone in the jungle,” Nilson said.

“It was truly an experience that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. If they had explained to me before [we left home], I would not have risked my daughter, my grandmother, or any of us… We would have thought of doing something else,” Genesys said. “My grandmother broke her little foot… We ran out of food… It took us six days to get out [of the Darien Gap]. We were very hungry and, apart from everything, they [gangs] robbed us in the jungle, some hooded armed men came out, pointed guns at us and took all our money.”

Crossing rivers with a toddler and an elderly woman was the biggest challenge they faced from the natural world. The couple managed to shepherd everyone across the water, with Nilson holding two-year-old Melany and Genesys guiding her grandmother and Brittany.

Five people, three adults and two children, photographed from the back and walking away from the camera.
The family is only planning to stay a short time in Honduras before continuing their journey.

At one point in the jungle, the family passed a tent containing five dead bodies. Genesys worries that these encounters with death and violence will have a lasting impact on her children.

Despite all the hardships of their life in Ecuador and the violence they encountered on the migration trail, the couple is happy that they found each other and were able to construct a new family spanning three generations. As Genesys said during their brief stay in at the Charitas shelter, “Thank God we are a very beautiful couple…It is a healthy relationship, with a lot of tranquility.”

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